The Secret of 77

In search of . . . buried treasure with Jesus Wore Dickies

Aside from recording natural sounds, the missions apparently revolved around what a psychologist might call extreme risk-taking behavior: climbing tall bridges, jumping barbed-wire fences, finding dead bodies beside the train tracks, breaking into buildings, getting chased by cops, and outrunning Edison security guards on golf carts. "Some people jump out of airplanes," Roth says. "I wanted to jump out of planes, but I couldn't afford it, so we climbed the bridge at 4 a.m. and avoided the cops, and it was exciting and adrenalin-filled."

They also explored one particularly nightmarish place known by locals as "Third World." Here, says Roth, they'd interview crazy homeless people and crack fiends—or just hide in a corner and watch the action, drinking a beer or smoking a bowl.

All that fun has ended, though, with the death of his friends. Which means that Roth is also the last surviving individual who knows the secret location of the buried Terminal Island treasure.

Assuming there is one, of course.

I ponder that question as we reach the entrance to Third World at Terminal Island's Foote Street. "You know in the cheesy apocalyptic movies where bums are in the street with trash cans on fire?" Roth asks. "It's here. This is where they take stolen car parts and everything. Mostly, they just eat crack. They eat crack, sell car parts, and I don't know what else. I don't know how they exist, some of these people, because it's really bad. There are no restaurants down here. I don't know how they eat. I don't get it. Maybe they just don't eat."

Abandoned vehicles and stacked rubber tires abound behind barbed-wire fences on either side of the road. Brick walls and the soot-stained sides of warehouses are covered with obsessively repetitive graffiti: "Angel 2000," "Angel y Scrapy," "Fuck All Y'all 2000." As we drive by, a Sly Stallone look-alike wearing a military-style cap and mirrored sunglasses watches us. He's leaning against his 1970s-era sports car, munching—menacingly—on a sandwich. A gaggle of creepy crack dealers huddles across the street; their eyes are glazed and unfocused.

We head past the sulfur hills to the train tracks and make a left. Even with my four-wheel-drive vehicle, the going is rough, so I pull onto a dirt road and make a U-turn around a giant oak tree that sits in front of a courtyard covered by a tin roof and surrounded with walls strung together out of chain-link fences.

Inside the enclosure is an incredible sight: three giant ostriches, who leap into action, circling helplessly inside the pen. Not stopping, we cruise back toward Foote Street and pass a staggering homeless man who fruitlessly tries to stop us by waving his arms in the air. It's difficult to believe that anyone would intentionally explore Terminal Island at night, much less decide to bury $20,000 here, but Roth insists the treasure is real.

"Yeah, no bullshit about the 20 Gs," he insists. "It's all there. Somehow, I got a situation where I could get the money, and I'm the only surviving person who knows where it is. And I check up on it every couple of weeks." Of course, the longer the treasure remains undetected, the greater the chance it'll be discovered accidentally by a guy with backhoe: Terminal Island is constantly under construction. Explains Roth, "If it still hasn't been found by the time I die, they'll have to find a map of what Terminal Island used to look like, listen to the music, and go exploring."

Nowadays, Roth doesn't have much time for missions. He sleeps in an isolation booth inside his Costa Mesa studio with fellow band members DOZE and LEW and spends most of his time creating music. He has already written several new songs that show the band has progressed mightily—both in technical agility and songwriting skills. But Roth says none of those songs are necessarily going to be released any time soon. "Oh, those are just some songs I_put together," he said.

The band is about to release a self-produced EP, making use of a mountain of brand-new mixing equipment and computer-controlled sampling devices. Roth is evasive about how the band can afford such equipment. "We've got some supporters," is all he would say. According to Roth, Jesus Wore Dickies is working on a new project—the aforementioned full-length, choose-your-own-adventure CD —and has a number of side projects in the works. One of those is providing music for television commercials and sitcoms, including an ill-fated show, Red-Handed, which went dark after one or two episodes.

For someone who has survived the death of two close friends and whose last two jobs were cleaning beer lines at dive bars and manning the cash register at a Long Beach porn shop, things are finally starting to shape up. But Roth's crazy past lives on in music that remains obsessed with Terminal Island. That and the number 77. As anyone familiar with the CD knows, 77 is something of a central defining —or undefining—enigma for anyone struggling to understand Jesus Wore Dickies and the mystery of the buried treasure. It's everywhere—in the lyrics, in the number of tracks on the CD (there are 77) and in the names of the band's various members: Roth is SAVE77, for example, and the band's DJ is DOZE77. Even the disc's jewel case taunts listeners with the oxymoronic warning, "DON'T THINK ABOUT 77."

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